Why the best thing for your work could be…sitting up


Sure, slouching is bad for your back and neck—you knew that. Now a study suggests it may also affect how you feel about the very thing you’re working on.

The researchers found that people who slumped as they worked on a stressful task had more negative thoughts, fear, and low self-esteem than people who sat up straight.

This finding makes sense to me. It explains the deteriorating spiral that can take over when writing (or any thought-intensive task) isn’t going well. Obstacle -> slumping -> discouragement -> task feels harder -> more slumping -> and on it goes until you’re scrunched up in an unproductive ball of dark thoughts.

In my own experience, trying to change my thinking in the middle of a difficult project is easier said than done.  So could I focus on my posture as a way of coaching my mind?

Here’s what I’ve been doing since I read about the study:

  • When I catch myself slouching, sit up straighter.
  • When I notice my thoughts spiraling into this-is-impossible territory, sit up straighter.

I anticipated that this would feel extremely unnatural. But it’s a simple enough routine that I’ve been able to do it pretty consistently. It doesn’t even require that I stop working or get out of my chair.

It’s also slowing down my breathing, which is always a good thing.

I should mention that “sit up straighter” doesn’t mean stiffening my back, or locking my shoulders, or anything that rigid. It’s more a matter of letting my spine extend upward, Somatic-Learning-style.

Work seems to be going a little easier. My neck thanks me; over time, I bet my attitude will too.

An easy way to make driving more pleasant


Driving provides all kinds of excuses to get annoyed.

I’m appalled by people who cut in without signaling, weave between cars, don’t leave space to change lanes.

Each of us is the hero of our own story, and I don’t think of myself as the jerk—hey, I use turn signals! But I get gripped by a sense of urgency on the road, even when I have plenty of time to get to my destination.  I get irritated when a driver in front of me is going two miles an hour under my preferred speed. (Really? That’s gonna make a difference in my arrival time?)  I curse at inconsiderate drivers (this happens inside my car, with the windows up), even though it doesn’t make me feel any better.

Why can’t people be more courteous?, I fume. More respectful?

One day behind the wheel, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t hurt to apply that question to myself. What would it be like to make courteous and respectful driving my own standard?

It changed everything about the hour-long drive.

When tempted to speed up and pass, I thought “courteous and respectful” . . . and calmly assessed whether passing was worth the trouble. I quit worrying about whether I was in the lane with the fastest traffic flow. When other drivers were rude, I thought, “Wow, that wasn’t very courteous. But I can still be courteous.”

I saw someone signaling in the next lane over, and instead of zipping past and letting them find a pocket behind me, I tapped my brakes and let the driver in. It felt great. I was surprised at how great it felt.

Oddly, “courteous and respectful” motivates me more than “be safe.”  And I arrive in a much better mood.


A way to embrace uncertainty

I spent the weekend at the annual Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which looks at the role of mindfulness in the digital age.

One of the most powerful sessions I attended was a breakout on discomfort as a path to innovation. Facilitator J. Miakoda Taylor had us each identify an issue at the edge of our comfort zone. Then, working in pairs, we asked questions of ourselves and each other using the following process:

  • Notice and name a physical sensation. (This gets us grounded, and out of our habitual mental grooves. Any sensation will work—mine was a chill in my back.)
  • Ask a question out loud about the challenging issue we’d selected, and resist the urge to answer it—just ask without the expectation of an answer.
  • Give the other person a turn to ask a question about the same issue, again without answering.
  • Feel the impact of the other person’s words.
  • Continue taking turns asking a question, each time tuning in to a physical sensation before speaking.

The issue I chose had to do with a complex project I’ve taken on that involves developing new skills. Some surprising and provocative questions bubbled up as I worked with my partner, such as “How does the team want to transform?”

Freed of the pressure to problem-solve, I could let those questions reverberate, inviting me to explore more deeply. I got the sense that continuing to ask questions, rather than provide answers, might be one of the most helpful contributions I can make in this new role.


The pleasure of putting away


“It’s time to take down the Christmas tree,” said my sister.

“I don’t want you to take away the tree!” cried my nine-year-old niece, and she fled the room.

My 12-year-old niece stayed in the living room to help her mom. Gently, they removed the ornaments one by one and placed them in the storage box.

We admired each ornament as it came down: the translucent globe from the art museum. The wooden angel floating on his belly. The mermaid with tiny shells glued to her fin.

“I made these in third grade,” said my niece of the foil disks painted with felt-tip marker, as I complimented her work. “This,” I said of a bejeweled sphere, “reminds me of the year I covered styrofoam balls with ribbons and hatpins back in junior high.”  “I still remember that star you cut from a pie plate for the top of the tree,” my sister told me.

I understand the nine-year-old’s reluctance to say goodbye to the tree. But she missed what turned out to be a fond hour of appreciation.

It’s easy to value beginnings and peak experiences. But sometimes endings can be just as sweet.


Check that critic!

I’m experimenting with a new way to manage the inner critic. (Happy to say it’s been more critic than doomsayer lately, but that nagging voice of doubt still saps my energy and efficiency.) I call this technique the Gremlin Checklist. It combines the best aspects of the split-screen technique and mental-habits labeling into one convenient package!

I made a one-page chart. Down one side, I’ve listed all the things the inner critic typically says when I’m doing creative work. I know what the themes are by now: “This piece of the project is impossible to fix.” “Someone might hate this.” “I’m too sleepy / hungry to concentrate right now.” “The tension is intolerable! I’m hurting my health and must distract myself!”… plus about a dozen more.

Down the other side of the page is a blank column. It’s for check marks. When I get stuck, I notice what I’m saying to myself that got me stuck, and I put a quick check mark next to that statement on the chart.

So it looks like this: Write write write (or Plan plan plan) … screeching halt … “Hm, OK, that sounds like ‘This is getting so complicated I can’t possibly organize it.’ CHECK!”  Write write write (or Plan plan plan) … gear-grinding … “Oh yeah, that’s ‘I must research this point intensively so I don’t look like an idiot. I’m off to the Internet!’ CHECK!”

The list of comments gives me distance and reminds me that, hey, I’ve heard this before, and my job isn’t to please the critic. As for the check marks, they give me a quick way to acknowledge the voice and get back to task. Without the check marks, I tend to drift, dwelling on the critical comments instead of trying things that would move the project forward.

Sometimes I use a couple of blank columns instead of just one, and put dates at the top of each column. It can be interesting to note where the checkmarks cluster on a given day.

I’m finding that the Gremlin Checklist works not just for writing, but also workshop development, or any type of project that involves a degree of focus and frustration.